Review: The New Mind of the South
Tracy Thompson. The New Mind of the South. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013. 272 pp. ISBN 978-1-43915-803-6.
Here’s a perfect non-fiction summer reading for those of you wanting to settle on your porch in the evening hours, beverage (adult or otherwise) in hand, and just be entertained and instructed by an author whose reflections on and travelogue about the contemporary South is one of the better ones I’ve ever read. As a native, Thompson isn’t taken in by hype about the South, as was the great writer V. S. Naipaul in his bad book A Turn in the South, where residents who were obviously play-acting the part of “Southerner” with him fooled the author into some embarrassing generalizations. Further, unlike most books on the subjects, Thompson discusses black people as southerners (the term “southerner,” infuriatingly, is nearly always a synonym for “white southerner,” a convention I’ve spent my scholarly career, without much effect, trying to overturn). She doesn’t do this as much as I would have liked, but she does it more than most, and I’m happy for that. Further, she zeroes in immediately on two central issues of “southern identity”—the legacies of slavery and evangelicalism—and uses those to frame her book, even while devoting fun-to-read sections on how contemporary migrants and immigrants (especially Latinos, for whom “the South” is El Norte) conceive of this region of the United States.
Before discussing this book a bit, let me urge you to listen to Art Remillard’s podcast with the author, yet another of Art’s expertly done conversations with a variety of authors and scholars. The conversation captures much about the book, and you can hear how the literal voice of the author matches the metaphorical voice of the author in reading the book—the author sounds in person like she sounds on the page: warm, open, engaging, and someone who can engage Latino students in an Asheboro public school as easily as she can members of a United Daughters of the Confederacy meeting or Atlantans frustrated at the perpetual traffic gridlock that grips highways of the region.
And while you’re at it, go to the author’s blogsite, the Blockhead Chronicles, where she carries on the informal but informative sorts of discussions that are found in this book. Just recently, I was reading Walter Johnson’s profound new book River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (2013), which implicitly (and at one point explicitly) draws some parallels between the world the slaveholders wanted to make, and sometimes made, and the kinds of economic, environmental, and educational inequalities and degradation of the contemporary world. Thompson’s blog has a short post which essentially summarizes that point.
The book’s title, obviously, plays off Wilbur J. Cash’s classic Mind of the South (1941). Cash, of course, famously found that the South didn’t have a mind, but an identity defined by its rural culture, the upward mobility of its poor-folk-become-planters in the nineteenth century, its commitment to white supremacy, and yet profound interaction with the black people who made its wealth and a good deal of its culture.
The Mind of the South memorably portrays the rise of southern evangelicalism in the early nineteenth century. From its earliest days, Cash wrote, southern evangelicalism was tied up with sin and subordination, and with “a personal God, a God for the individualist, a God whose representatives were not silken priests but preachers risen from the people themselves.” “What our Southerner required … was a faith as simple and emotional as himself,” Cash wrote in one of his characteristically exaggerated but trenchant summaries. 1
Thompson picks this up in her chapter “Jesusland,” where she remembers growing up in the East Point Christian Church of Atlanta. “Fierce doctrinal battles” characterized the religion of her youth, as questions of the exact theology and order of salvation, baptism, and communion preoccupied believers (115). And perhaps the Supreme Court had declared public school prayer unconstitutional in 1962, but Thompson remembers plenty of school prayer in public schools in her Georgia childhood (as I do of my Oklahoma childhood at close to the same time), as well as school revivals and more or less constant public prayer “in Jesus’ name,” from graduations to football games.
(A personal note: For years, I have been telling people the story of how in my public grade school, in an all-white county, we were instructed to “pray” for our senators to make the right decision about busing—i.e., to oppose it. We had school prayer and bible readings on precisely that issue—most confusing to us in rural Oklahoma, where nearly everyone came to school on buses transporting farm kids to one of only two towns in the county. As I prayed, I also asked God to help the kids get to school if they didn’t have buses. Thompson grew up an urbanite, but I think she would appreciate that story).
Similarly, Thompson writes that the “box” of southern identity has two “constants,” the “two great institutions that have defined the limits of the available contents: evangelical religion and slavery.” Of slavery, Tocqueville said that “God alone can obliterate the traces of its existence.” But Thompson adds, “two hundred years later, God still hasn’t gotten around to it” (7–8). And that’s true of evangelical religion, too. And yet, the part of the box of southern identity represented by those two is shrinking. As is true throughout the book, Thompson finds that while the past is never dead, sometimes it does seem “past,” or amenable to change. A “more global, socially conscious evangelicalism” is likely to replace the “fundamentalist influence on evangelical religion,” Thompson suggests, citing there an interview conducted with historian Darren Dochuk of From Bible Belt to Sunbelt fame (139).
This theme of a persistent but waning or changing “southern culture” defines much of the best of the book. Early on, Thompson points out that the famously “conservative” South is so in part because “because tradition in the South is like beachfront property in an era of global warming: as much as you love the view, you live with the knowledge that some morning you will wake up and find it gone.” Southerners “can’t shut up” about the past, which suggests something about how much “massive, wrenching social change” they had been through (11).
Throughout the rest of the book, well-wrought passages and excellent user-friendly summations of scholarly findings leaven the work. About why southerners fought in the Civil War, for example, Thompson writes: “Individually, they fought for a variety of reasons; collectively, they fought to preserve and expand an economic system based on slavery.” Yes, of course, it’s complicated, but that pretty well captures the last generation or so of “why men fought in the Civil War” scholarship. As for Civil War memory and textbooks, Thompson points out that for much of the twentieth century defenders of the Lost Cause, especially the United Daughters of the Confederacy, were the primary purveyors of “political correctness.” For decades “publishers of school textbooks went out of their way not to offend delicate Southern sensibilities in their treatment of the Civil War.” Today, textbook publishers, eager not to offend anyone, “don’t perpetrate the Lost Cause myth, but they don’t do much to correct it, either” (52).
In the conclusion, Thompson traces how, gradually, the South is disentangling itself from the Confederacy, and she hopes this suggests progress in “dealing with aspects of race as the apply to us personally without treating it like it’s kryptonite” (233). If the South won’t be defined by the Confederacy, then what will define the region? Thompson suggests “a sense of community forged under the conditions that obtained in the South: reinforced by race-based laws, the tacit acknowledgment of a hidden history, collective delusions, intense peer pressure, and a pervasive religious atmosphere.” And despite the Americanization of the region, its being “urbanized, suburbanized, [and] strip-malled,” the region still “bears the imprint of that deep sense of community and an almost tribal definition of kin” (234–35).
Maybe. But I’m skeptical, for the very reason that Thompson astutely discusses earlier in the book: that wrenching, sweeping, community-altering change is a central theme of southern history. Wilbur J. Cash understood this as he traced how rough-and-tumble Scots-Irish settlers wrested plantations out of newly seized lands, and within their own lifetime had redefined themselves as planters bearing a regal heritage. Faulkner knew that too, and told about that part of the South in the epic novel Absalom, Absalom. And for a more recent era, Thompson knows it too. Discussing the decline of community life in the rural South, she discovers that this process has left a “population skewed toward the very old, the very young, the chronically unemployed, and—not least—the unhealthy” (151) She then discusses the kinds of maps that I have summarized in chapter one of Moses, Jesus, and the Trickster in the Evangelical South (2012), showing that the “Bible Belt” is also the obesity, diabetes, heart disease, divorce, alcoholism, illiteracy, and gun violence Belt.
And so, if not community, then what defines the new mind of the South? Religiosity does, I would argue. It’s not quite the same religiosity as before, and it’s being altered by immigrants and also by the rise of a more vocal class of “nones.” But evangelicalism remains far more characteristic of southern life than for any other region. The new mind of the South, then, still has a fair portion of the old mind of the South; there’s some distance, but not a country mile, between Wilbur J. Cash and Tracy Thompson.
Wilbur J. Cash, The Mind of the South (1941; New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 56.↩